Art/Research Making in the School Lives of CAPE Students

 In Louanne Smolin, The CAPE Artist/Researcher Journal, The CAPE Blog

By Louanne Smolin, Ed.D.

In a recent blog post, CAPE’s Education Director Scott Sikkema discussed one of CAPE’s longstanding strategic goals: “CAPE will become a research organization.” As I read through the post, it occurred to me that CAPE aims to dig deep, perhaps going broader and deeper than what traditional program research frameworks may offer.

I am a research consultant who has worked with CAPE. I have conducted studies that look at the impact of CAPE arts integration practices on teacher growth, I conducted studies that look at the connections between teacher professional development and student learning, and I have conducted research on CAPE staff practices. While evaluating effectiveness is an important aspect of CAPE’s research efforts, I see that they are also providing opportunities for their community members to explore, examine and unpack what research in an arts integrated context looks like.

I’d like to dedicate this post to a discussion of art and research making; how CAPE’s students participate in research while art making. Specifically, I’d like to ask:

What is the interplay of artistic processes and research for the students in CAPE’s programs? How do students “take up” or engage in the practice of research as they pursue their artistic practices. Why is that important?

I’ll be drawing examples from CAPE’s federally funded multiyear Portfolio Design Project (PDP). Features of PDP included professional development, arts integrated curriculum and collaboration between teaching artists, school based arts educators, 4-6th grade classroom teachers and their students. In PDP, each student created and curated portfolios, covering 3 years of learning, as they participated in collaboratively designed, inquiry-based, arts-integrated curriculum. (

Interplay of Art and Research Making

Fundamentally, both art and research making involve intense meaning making, or making sense of ideas, events, lives and self. What do you focus on when you read the term making sense? I focus on the word “sense” and the act of using our senses to distill our experiences. As artists and researchers, we collect, document, create and keep materials, thoughts, drawings, photos, sounds, memories and more. As we curate these artifacts, our senses enable us to move between experience, material and mind. What are some of the practices that enable us to do this? Here are some of my thoughts.

Capturing the noteworthy. As I pored through the PDP portfolios, I saw many instances of students collecting and documenting notes and ideas…the bits and pieces of their classroom learning experiences. I also saw them annotating and coding aspects of the content that they encountered during their lessons. The images below show how one student created symbols and codes to detail her listening of an opera.


Listening to musical scores, noting long and short interludes 



Listening to musical scores, coding instrument composition




Deconstructing musical scores- noting sounds, emotions, actions, connections to other scores.

These are wonderful examples of “code booking”. As this student is capturing the essence of a curriculum through notation, writing, drawing and keeping artifacts, she is capturing what is ephemeral, expanding her vocabulary, and creating a symbolic toolset to draw upon in the future. These are all important components of art and research making. They help the unseen or as yet unknown aspects of art and content become named, available for meaning making and generating new work.

Mining evidence for explanation. Both art making and research making are aesthetic processes that involve looking and attention. I often see students collecting artifacts, materials and thoughts for their portfolios. It is much less often that see them diving back into their collections. However, we researchers iteratively and systematically return to or re-search within our collections. I believe that artists do the same, and in the PDP program students were afforded this opportunity.   The image below depicts how PDP students systematically re-searched their own art making experiences.


Returning to portfolios

 At the top of the image is a student portfolio and on the bottom that student’s research/reflection sheet. The purple line on the research sheet contains a question designed to help the student research her own portfolio: how do we write music down so that we can remember it and perform it again? Note the purple circle sticker on the student’s portfolio. She dove back into her portfolio, identifying her plan for creating a musical score entitled “Baking Days”. She identified this page, providing evidence of writing music down so that it can be performed again. In her reflection on the bottom sheet, she states: We can remember our music by writing scores that help us rehearse and perform. She is drawing upon her own experience and actions, or using her personal textbook for research and future art making.

Posing Problems and New Pathways. Research is an endeavor in posing problems, navigating challenges, and generating new knowledge. Isn’t this similar to art making? Here’s one PDP example of both. Students in a 6th grade class created symbols to describe concepts learned in a literary unit. One student struggled to graphically depict a central theme of a novel being studied: discrimination. She describes her art making process below:

I had a really difficult time picking one of my images. I couldn’t find the one I wanted. I know I had to be more open with it. What I learned from this is that I can find what I want if I’m open to it all.

Do you see an interplay of research and art making here? Let’s play with this. On a surface level, we can intuit that this student is researching images, discriminating among them to find any that best communicate her intentions. She describes a dilemma: not finding a suitable image. Her reflection exemplifies how art making forces or sparks research. Do you see the inner conversation going on here? A questioning between this artist and the materials with which she is working? Problem posing? These are the questions I think she is asking:

  • What am I seeing in this material?
  • How is it fitting or not fitting with my plans or inspiration or intention for my creation?
  • When materials don’t fit my intention or plan, where does it leave me and/or my artwork
  • What did I learn from the experience that will help me enter back into the act of artmaking?

In her reflections, this student returned to her classroom experience, searched for meaning and made a discovery: the importance of staying open. I think the interplay between artmaking and research is clear. This student is appraising the situation, reflecting on its implications, adjusting her artistic practice. She is becoming a self reliant artist, setting her own path forward. I believe that problem posing will help her persist through challenges and guide her future artmaking efforts.

Interplay of art and research making: Why is this important?

I must share something with you. As a researcher, the diving in, returning and problem posing are all strategies I use as a researcher to make meaning of my observations, interviews and artifact analysis. As an educator, beginning to see and make sense of this interplay of art and research making excites me! I am gaining a better understanding of how research in art making becomes a pathway that students construct to set course, establish agency, and experience the power of learning. Through the students’ portfolios, they raised their honest and brilliant and poignant voices. Through their art and research making, they exercised an “I can do it” agency. With voice and agency, they accessed a power not always experienced by them at school, the power of using their own thoughts, knowledge, gifts and resources for learning. Voice, Agency, Power. Big words for Young Humans. Strong rationale for why arts integration is important to students’ lives.

I know there is much more ground to cover. Help me to think more about this! Let’s dialogue about the interplay of artistic practices and research in your lives. What connections do you see between you and your students in this regard? How do you see your students negotiating between art and research making?

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